The two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism

December 16, 2015 at 5:16 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, literature, Marxism, posted by JD, revolution, Shachtman, stalinism, trotskyism, Uncategorized)

Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934

2015 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police. Workers’ Liberty has published a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna puts the record of the two sides into perspective.

The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.

The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).

We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.

To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.

French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.

Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not

James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.

I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”

Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.

The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.

This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.


A second edition of the book has just been published, and you can get a pdf of the whole of the second edition at:

Copies can be ordered here (note special offer until 19 December).



  1. Steven Johnston said,

    Trotsky, he was fond of dressing up in military uniforms…despite having no military background and anyone who got in his way met with a sticky end.

    • Glasgow Working Class said,

      Steven, he did well for a civvy. Men do like to wear uniforms with all the scrambled egg attached.

  2. Jim Denham said,

    Paul Le Blanc (US Marxist) writes


    With the publication of two fat volumes of documents under the heading “The Fate of the Russian Revolution,” under the editorship of Sean Matgamna, the Workers’ Liberty current in Britain has performed a genuine service for scholars and activists.

    Something of Value

    In a sense, we are presented with three books in the guise of two, with the editor producing introductions of 156 pages in the first volume and 125 pages (including timeline and glossary) in the second. This “book” of 281 pages advances a line of argument that champions the perspectives of Max Shachtman, a U.S. associate of Leon Trotsky who broke with him in 1940.

    Just out is the 790-page second installment – The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism (London: Workers Liberty, 2015), dealing with the contending views within the U.S. Trotskyist movement 1940s – specifically, those aligned with Trotsky and James P. Cannon in the Socialist Workers Party, and those aligned with Shachtman in what became (for a while) the Workers Party.

    The previous volume is actually entitled The Fate of the Russian Revolution (London: Phoenix Press, 1998), basically presenting the views of Shachtman and the current he led during the 1940s, and early 1950s. A “slimmer” volume, it weighs in at slightly over 600 pages. It was actually published as Volume 1 of “Lost Texts of Critical Marxism,” an overarching banner that seems to have been dropped.

    There are some who, for whatever reasons, do not think there is much (or any) importance to such history, and have expressed the view that the publication of these volumes is ridiculous. It is certainly true that poring through old left-wing documents from the 1930s and 1940s is not something that most people are inclined (or in a position) to do. But to deny that there is anything useful to learn from such excavations and explorations is inconsistent with a serious attitude toward the discipline of history, as well as toward political theory, not to mention Marxism. What’s more, the materials by Shachtman and his comrades are packed with interesting ideas, useful information, and sometimes delicious humor. For some of us, at least, they are well worth looking at.

    There are others who complain that the two volumes are skewed to favor the Shachtmanite orientation, and they certainly are. But there is hardly anything wrong with that, because the very purpose of these works is to make the case for the Shachtman orientation. If Sean Matagmna didn’t feel a passion for this perspective – which he advocates in the very capable polemic that constitutes the “third book” – these volumes would never have been produced at all.

    The Trotskyist Approach

    Writing a capable polemic does not necessarily mean writing a persuasive polemic. For example, I am not persuaded that the ideas and the very nature of Shachtman’s Trotskyist opponents – James P. Cannon and others in the Socialist Workers Party – are adequately characterized or dealt with either by Shachtman or Matgamna. It can certainly be argued that, over the long haul, their organization held up better than that of Shachtman, their political orientation proved in some ways less disastrous (avoiding Shachtman’s Cold War anti-Communism of the 1960s – instead organizing an effective movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam), and their theoretical orientation continues to have much to recommend it.

    It is this last point that I want to focus on in the remainder of these comments. As the framework, we must naturally turn our attention to the analysis Shachtman contended with – that developed by Trotsky. As Matgamna correctly emphasizes: “Trotsky constantly rethought, reconceptualized, readjusted his thinking on the USSR as on other issues.” This is amply demonstrated in Thomas M. Twiss’s remarkable new study, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), which traces the evolution of Trotsky’s analyses and theorizations from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s, replete with brilliant insights blended with false starts, misperceptions compelling subsequent corrections, and the evolution of a deepening understanding of complex realities. The culmination was the 1936-37 classic The Revolution Betrayed.

    The Revolution Betrayed covered a broad array of economic, social, political, and cultural issues. Trotsky went on to argue that the Soviet state and society were fluid, transitional, and could not be defined by “finished social categories” such as capitalism or socialism. Capitalism was governed by profit-driven market relations, an accumulation process, inconsistent with the actual dynamics of the USSR. Socialism could not be reduced to a state-owned economy with top-down centralized planning in a single country, even one as large as the USSR – it required genuine democracy and global scope to be viable and consistent with a Marxist understanding of socialism. Instead, Trotsky offered this complex characterization:

    The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.

    Trotsky believed that “only hypotheses are possible” regarding future developments beyond this transitional stage. One possibility was the eventual restoration of capitalism – which, in fact, is what finally happened. He had genuine hopes, however, that the struggles of “living social forces,” including in the Soviet Union, would move forward toward socialism in the foreseeable future.

    Concluding that “the bureaucracy can be removed only by a revolutionary force,” Trotsky noted that “to prepare this and stand at the head of the masses in a favorable historic situation” would be “the task of the Soviet section of the Fourth International.” He admitted that “today it is still weak and driven underground,” but added that “the illegal existence of a party is not nonexistence.”

    Problematical Developments

    This key assumption was to become almost immediately problematical with the onset of what the late historian Vadim Rogovin termed “political genocide” – Stalin’s 1937-38 slaughter of old Bolsheviks, and of the majority of Trotskyists who were machine-gunned in the gulags. A case can be made that a failure to adequately factor this horrific fact into his subsequent analyses and theorizations introduced an element of unreality into what Trotsky had to say about the political revolution he advocated. But it is worth giving serious consideration, nonetheless, to what he meant by “political revolution.”

    Believing that the political revolution he called for must not substitute one ruling clique with another, Trotsky insisted that “bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy,” and he offered details on what this would look like. Full freedom of speech and genuinely free elections, with not only a democratization of the Bolshevik party but also the freedom for other parties to exist in the re-democratized Soviets, would all be crucial, as would the revival of the trade unions. “The bringing of democracy into industry means a radical revision of plans in the interests of the toilers. Free discussion of economic problems will decrease the overhead expense of bureaucratic mistakes and zigzags.” Bureaucratic privileges and high-budget “show-off” projects would make way for a more equitable sharing of the social wealth, with decent housing and other social needs being prioritized. “The youth will receive the opportunity to breathe freely, criticize, make mistakes, and grow up. Science and art will be freed of their chains.” And naturally, “foreign policy will return to the traditions of revolutionary internationalism.”

    Trotsky believed that such a political revolution could free the nationalized, planned economy – flowing from the conquests of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 – from the authoritarian-bureaucratic stranglehold that would otherwise kill it. The Bolsheviks, had led the successful struggle to give all power to the soviets, the democratic workers’ councils, thereby creating a workers state, which had begun the transition from capitalism to socialism. The bureaucratically-degenerated workers’ state must be replaced by the re-establishment of a genuinely democratic workers state.

    What Max Shachtman and others have insisted upon it that the loss of political power by the working class makes Trotsky’s insistent characterization of the USSR as any kind of a workers’ state incredibly problematical. Combine this with the physical elimination of the forces in the USSR that might have been capable of leading the political revolution for which Trotsky and his co-thinkers were calling, and we seem to have entered a theoretical and political cul-de-sac.

    Shachtman concluded that the Stalinist bureaucracy was a far more stable formation than Trotsky wanted to believe. Following James Burnham (who later became a right-wing ideologue, and whose importance Matagmna goes out of his way to minimize) and Joseph Carter, Shachtman concluded that what had crystallized was a new form of class society – unanticipated in Marxist theory. This new class society was tagged as bureaucratic-collectivism, which Shachtman saw as no better, no less exploitative, no more progressive than capitalism. Within two decades he partially followed Burnham’s trajectory, seeing this new tyranny as much worse, far more exploitative, far less progressive than capitalism. He then joined Cold War anti-Communists who saw the power of the capitalist United States (whose imperialist foreign policy Shachtman had been denouncing over four decades) as the strongest bulwark against the totalitarian menace.

    In addition to Trotsky’s and Shachtman’s approaches, there is the alternate theoretical construct of “state capitalism” – that is, seeing what developed in the USSR as simply a new variant of capitalism, with the bureaucratic state functioning as the “capitalist” that extracts surplus-value from the still-exploited proletariat. Different variants of this theoretical approach were developed by the “council communists” associated with Anton Pannekoek, Otto Rühle, Paul Mattick, and others; by the Johnson-Forest Tendency and its successors associated with C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya; and by Tony Cliff and others associated with the International Socialists and British Socialist Workers Party.

    In 1948 Cliff forecast Shachtman’s trajectory: “If the Stalinist regime denotes the decline of civilization, the reactionary negation of capitalism, then it is of course more reactionary than the latter. Capitalism has to be defended from Stalinist barbarism” (Tony Cliff, “The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism: A Critique,” Selected Writings [London: Bookmarks, 2003], 160). Partisans of the state-capitalist theory, no less than those of the degenerated workers state perspective, have seen bureaucratic-collectivism as facilitating a fatal accommodation between would-be Marxist revolutionaries and actually-existing capitalism.

    Scientific Socialism

    Shachtman’s 1940s articulation of the theory of bureaucratic-collectivism, however, does not inevitably lead to an alignment with the foreign policy of U.S. imperialism. Among the partisans of the theory who did not abandon revolutionary politics are Julius and Phyllis Jacobson, Hal Draper, and others who produced the journal New Politics, various comrades associated with the U.S. group Solidarity, etc. No less important than the revolutionary honor of such partisans, however, is the theory’s value for what some of us call scientific socialism – a commitment to struggling for socialism that is grounded in a serious utilization of what are today the disciplines of history, economics, sociology and political science.

    Bureaucratic-collectivism certainly has value as a descriptive term – the economy is collectivized (not a market economy) but is dominated and ruled by an authoritarian regime representing a privileged and powerful bureaucratic apparatus. But what Shachtman meant by “bureaucratic-collectivism” was more than that. The apparatus was seen as a socio-economic class, similar to the slave-owning patricians of ancient Rome, the hereditary aristocracy of feudal times, and the capitalists of our own day. Similarly, bureaucratic-collectivism was presented as a new form of class society. From our own historical vantage-point, the roughly fifty-year existence of this purportedly “new stage of class society” does suggest the possibility that Shachtman and his comrades were experiencing an optical illusion. As Trotsky argued, it was all much more transitory than they believed (although certainly less transitory than Trotsky himself had anticipated).

    Marcel van der Linden, in his excellent survey of contending theories, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), has noted that “it is perfectly clear that the Soviet society can hardly be explained in orthodox Marxist terms at all.” In examining the predominant theoretical variants – (1) degenerated workers state, (b) bureaucratic-collectivism, and (3) state capitalism – he concludes that a fully adequate analysis of the USSR has yet to be developed. He adds that this does “not mean to imply that the old theories are of no use whatever in further theoretical developments,” suggesting (correctly, in my opinion) that each approach has, in fact, proved capable of generating valuable insights and analyses.

    To the extent that this is true, and that the materials in these volumes also provide valuable primary sources on the important history of U.S. and world Trotskyism, those committed to a truly scientific socialism in efforts to understand and change the world should see the publication of these volumes as a positive contribution

  3. Steven Johnston said,

    I’ve always asked, but never got an answer from Trotskyists, which of these resolutions do they oppose?

    As their hero had those behind this all shot, even their families too.
    What, in here, is so awful that they deserved such a fate?

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